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John Thomas Carpmail
“The Colonel”

John Thomas Carpmail, (1858-1940) known as ‘The Colonel’. Employed in the South Australian Railways, lived in Farina in the 1890’s with his wife, Emma, and son, William. Photo taken C1900.

Emma Carpmail
(nee Lewis)

Emma Carpmail (nee Lewis) – 1857 -1930, married to John Thomas Carpmail, mother of William. Photo taken C 1900

Farina Revisited

This story of a trip to Farina in late 2018 has been published with the kind permission of the author, Ian Laver, who is the grandson of Bill Carpmail. Ian has also provided a number of photographs.

Our small family party, Rosemary, Peter, Alice, Lindsay and I, stayed at the pub in Lyndhurst before heading to the Farina ruins for a few days in late 2018. My mother, Ina, who had just turned one hundred, could not join us because she did not want to miss afternoon tea with her friends.

The bitumen turned into an unsealed road and the outback greeted us with a flat, dry landscape. After about fifteen minutes, ruins appeared in the distance and we knew it was Farina, originally called, Government Gums.

I was completely awestruck by the scene rising from the gibbers and saltbush. Reconstructed buildings rose unexpectedly from the desert like majestic anthills. The chimney stacks, destitute buildings and piles of rocks seemed to blend in and belong with the surrounding gibber plains.

I am a writer and every direction I looked, my interest grew as stories of adventure, hardship and hope seemed to radiate from the landscape.

We looked at the restored fettler’s building, the first noticeable landmark from the southern end, thinking perhaps that was the building my grandfather, William (Bill) Carpmail, my brother Peter and I inspected on a visit in Grandpa’s Austin A40 in 1958. Details are just faded memories because I was only eleven at the time; my brother was two years older. We consulted some old black and white ‘Brownie’ photos we had taken which showed a string of railway cottages intact rather than a single building. We were not convinced of anything at that point, but we thought it appropriate to toast the “Carpmail’s of Farina” at the fettler’s cottage. A glass, or more truthfully, a plastic cup of red wine, probably not the best choice of refreshment at the start of a hot day but judging by the mount of broken glass around the area we didn’t feel the ritual out of place; plus, the wine was cold.

My great-grandfather, John Thomas Carpmail, known as the ‘Colonel’ worked for the South Australian Railways and was stationed at Farina from approximately 1892 to 1899. He worked further up the track in earlier times on the Great Northern Railway Line to Alice Springs; the names of Irrapatana and William Creek appear in family records. Bill, our grandfather used to tell us youngsters all sorts of stories, about Bob the Railway Dog, the characters of the outback as well as the fact that William Creek was named after him. I still believed him for many years until, later in life, I realised he was born after the place was named.

Anyway, The Carpmails, John (the Colonel 1858 -1940), his wife Emma (nee Lewis 1857 -1930), and young Bill (1886 – 1979), lived at Farina in the 1890’s, a time in Australian history when people had great dreams and visions for the future. Looking around the landscape it was hard to believe anyone could have thought there was any possibility of growing wheat. The seasons in the 1860’s may have looked similar to the country of the mid north of South Australia. Who knows? Planting crops might have seemed a good idea at the time. Many dry years must have followed the original projection and the country turned into desert. However, Farina was a very important location for the railway line, the lifeblood of the outback.

The debate as to the exact location of Grandpa’s childhood home had to wait because we were eager to have a look around town before it became too hot, so we decided to come back to that debate later.

We strolled the streets, sharing flies and the occasional whirly-wind, as the temperature climbed into the mid-thirties. The storyboard shelters were a welcome break from the sun.

I recalled visiting Farina again in the early 1960’s as well but it was a long time ago and I do not remember very much. Several buildings were standing, and we visited Bell’s store which I’m sure was still trading — whether that was on the 1958 visit or 1963, or both. My brother and I compared shared memories of landmarks, trying to piece together details of our visits.

It was interesting and nostalgic walking the dusty streets of Farina and imagining all the stories hiding away in the ruins. The effort put into the restoration is truly fantastic and I congratulate all who have contributed to this unusual project. Most other restoration projects in Australia are based on an already existing infrastructure, whereas Farina is mostly re-construction from the piles of rocks upwards. Walking the perimeter of the town and following the signposts and story boards and looking through the piles of old artefacts illustrates the magnitude of the Farina Restoration Project.

A few of the key buildings have been rebuilt, minus roofs and we went our own ways for a while. I spent time just standing alone in the deserted buildings, absorbing the quietness that can only be experienced in the outback. It was easy to be lost in thought, wondering what people’s lives were like in the days gone by.

We had lunch with the flies in the campsite riverbed, looking for a tree called, ‘The Lunch Tree’ that young Bill Carpmail and his mates climbed and ate their lunch on school days. We had a photo, taken in 1958, of Grandpa standing just above the base. There are quite a few trees in the riverbed, but we could not find the tree in question, it could have been any one of many, but most did not seem big enough. Also, it would have been near the school, we guessed, and thus far we had not found the school. After all, it was over a hundred and twenty years ago. The tree could have been washed away in a flood, cut down for building bridges or used for sleepers, or even firewood.

We exhausted ourselves on day one and retired to the Lyndhurst pub for well-earned refreshments.

On day two we left earlier to take advantage of the cool morning and spent time around the station yards, turnaround area and loading facilities. We decided against a game of cricket because someone was liable to get hurt taking a dive for a catch. Also, if the bowler landed one outside the concrete pitch, the ball could go anywhere. We laughed at the possibility of playing an Aussie rules game but who knows, maybe a game or two was played there. By the time we visited the cemetery, which is well laid out with a helpful information board, and some shade, I ‘d swear the temperature was close to fifty degrees. That’s my story, anyway. Because Of Global Warming we had to be careful.

Kevin and Anne Dawes, of Farina Station, pointed out the school house. No wonder we could not find it earlier because it sits tucked away alongside the present homestead. They also steered us towards the ruins of the railway cottages that my brother and I remembered. Straight away I was close to certain it was the spot that Grandpa showed us on the 1958 trip. The ruins lie just the south of the restored fettler’s house where we had been earlier. I remember the cottages were close to the railway line which is only just evident now because I took the photo standing almost on the line. There are just two concrete slabs with piles of rubble and I guess some of the best stone was used to rebuild the fettler’s house. I felt a pang of sadness because it was just a ruin but at the same time I was pleased we had more than likely found the cottages where my great-grand-parents, and my grandfather, lived their lives with other families, over a hundred and twenty years ago.

Grandpa, Bill Carpmail, used to often tell us stories about him and his mates, “Brownie, ‘Arvey and ‘Oges”, childhood friends who, with their dogs, Fly, Lion and Spring, went out shooting rabbits and kangaroos to supplement their meagre supplies of food.

I intend to follow up these names and try to find out what happened to them. Guy Harvey and Bill kept in touch, they used to play cards at our place in Broadview once a month, until Guy passed away. As for “Brownie” and “‘oges” – Jim Hogan, I’m someone will know.

We headed up to Marree and had a photo opportunity in front of the pub we had visited previously, fifty years ago, and being hot enough, we had a beer to celebrate, convincing ourselves it was un-Australian to not do so.

On the way back, my brother managed to locate the track to the Farina Racecourse. It was just as I remembered, even though I couldn’t recall how to get there. Once you get near, you can’t mistake the desolate flat salt pan. It should be renamed the Farina Sports and Social Club, as tennis courts had been marked out, a golf course, trail bike track and evidence of a landing strip for light aircraft. We had camped there on two occasions, sixty years earlier, in the shade of the grandstand which is now in ruins. The heat and flies were almost overwhelming, so we headed back in the direction of Quorn and the Railway Museum. And a few well-earned beers. We considered the beers well earned, anyway.

At present I am in the process of trying to piece together information about Farina during the period 1890 to 1900. If anyone can fill me in about the Brown’s, Harvey’s, or Hogan’s I’d be appreciative. Also, my Sunday School teacher at St Phillips, Broadview was a Tilmouth who went to school at Farina, but I lost contact with her.

Also, if anyone can give me a name or a contact in the SA Railways who could help me find out details of the employment history of John Thomas Carpmail , who worked at Irrapatana, William Creek, Terowie and Farina in the period about 1880 to approximately 1910 and then Islington Railway Workshops in the trade of his youth, as a Fitter and Turner, after that.

Emma Carpmail, his wife, acted as a midwife and certainly would have been involved in a wide range of other activities in the small community, as well as putting up with some frightful behaviour from the blokes. My Auntie Beryl, Bill’s daughter and Ina’s sister, said we shouldn’t blame the blokes too much for drinking and playing cards because, after all, it was the outback with flies, heat, cold, dust and only three trains a week. Not sure whether she had a smile on her face or not when she said that. Clearly, there must have been a substantial amount of drinking taking place in those times, the evidence being the amount of broken glass decorating the Farina landscape to this day. Seems like as much glass as gibber to my trained eye. One thing we did wonder about, how did they keep the beer cold? Maybe it was a case of warm beer or no beer!

The tough, strong women who lived in these places have many stories to tell.

Bill Carpmail attended several ‘Back to Farina’ gatherings in Adelaide in the seventies and if anyone can help with that please contact me. Ned Hewlett is a name that cropped up from one of those get-togethers. He evidently went to school with Bill in the mid eighteen nineties.

If anyone has any records or information on the school, e.g. school roll, photos — I have one of 1986 and on one of the storyboards there is a later photo — again please get in touch.

There may be some record of Emma Carpmail in community service. I believe the nearest medical service, doctor or hospital, at the time was at Terowie and , or, Port Augusta.

Before the white settlers, the Afghans and the Chinese, Aboriginals roamed the land. All have stories to tell, or to keep secret. Visions of growing wheat in the late eighteen hundreds did not eventuate but Farina became a bustling rail head on the Great Northern Railway, a rallying point for livestock going south to Adelaide and the camel trains with supplies heading north. Times changed, and the desert town faded for a time and was left to the elements. Now Farina has risen again out of the gibbers to take a well-deserved pride of place in the history of Australia.

‘Sifting through rubble and journals – Some stories too secret to tell. ‘

Ian Laver – Email: –    27/11/2018

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